An enriching visit to a magnificent Ordinariate church

Inside St Agatha's church in Portsmouth (

On Saturday I was honoured to be invited to preach at St Agatha’s in Portsmouth, the Church of the Portsmouth Ordinariate Mission. I learned several things on my trip to St Agatha’s, and will share them, as they say, with readers.

First of all, St Agatha’s is a very fine church with a worthy history, details of which can be found here, on its website. (The church also has a blog.) The sgraffito decoration of the apse is particularly beautiful, and many of the church’s fittings are quite sumptuous. As one would expect from the Ordinariate, the liturgy was magnificent: a solemn High Mass, with music by Mozart (the Little Credo Mass), and some thrilling organ playing, as well as several much loved English hymns. The ars celebrandi was to be admired, and I was in awe of the altar servers, both for their professionalism and their number.

St Agatha’s stands in what I assume is the middle of Portsmouth, but which is essentially a wasteland of car parks and shopping centres. Once this was the densely populated slum of Landport, but thanks to the Luftwaffe and the folly of post-war town planners, the church now stands alone, a magnificent building deprived of its original architectural context. We must be grateful for its survival, but at the same time mourn for all that we have lost. Portsmouth seems to me to be like so many others among our cities: arterial roads and attendant emptiness has replaced what was once a dense urban environment. I have seen similar things in Newport in Gwent, Sheffield, Swansea, and parts of Cardiff.

It is true that the houses that surrounded the church were slums, but slum clearance can be a mixed blessing; rather than demolishing the homes of the poor and relocating them elsewhere, generally at a distance to city centres and their amenities, it makes much more sense to help the poor to improve their dwellings and invest in the homes they already have. This certainly would seem to be the way forward in places such as Nairobi and other megacities which, like British cities in the nineteenth century, have grown very swiftly.

To return to the church itself. During my visit I cast my eyes over the new Ordinariate Missal, and thought it a very fine piece of work. I listened attentively to the celebrant, Fr John Maunder, and his curate, Mgr Robert Mercer, as they spoke in Cranmer’s English, and uttered those famous prayers, the Confession and the prayer of Humble Access. I admit that up till now, never having used the Book of Common Prayer for the purpose for which it was composed, that is, to pray, I had never really liked Cranmer’s prose, or understood why many think him so important. Well, having heard Cranmer used not just in a Catholic context, but rather in such a way that released from the prayers their innate Catholic sense (for there is nothing heretical about these two prayers at all – far from it), my mind has changed. Cranmer, many years after his execution for heresy, makes a fine enrichment of Catholic worship through the Anglican patrimony that the Ordinariate has brought to the entire Catholic Church.

My only regret is that I am unable to celebrate Mass according to the Ordinariate Use myself. I would urge all readers to visit an Ordinariate Church and judge this beautiful new liturgy for themselves.